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March 28, 2000

AL West Notebook

Spring Surprises

by Jeff Bower

Although most major teams head to spring training with enough players to fill two 25-man rosters, if all goes according to Hoyle, the winnowing of players the following six weeks is mainly a formality. This is as it should be, since personnel decisions shouldn't be based on 45 at-bats or 15 innings pitched. Inevitably, however, surprises pop up on that force organizations to consider options that weren't even in the back of their minds when camp began in late February.

The surprises typically are a mixture of pleasure and pain, sort of like finding a $50 gift certificate to Mistress Sonya's World of Latex. A player who began the spring as an afterthought can force his way to the front of the line by having such a scorching spring that demands he be noticed. Even then, unless a position battle is truly wide open, an implosion by an established player is generally necessary for the underdog to win a job.

Focusing a bit more on the pain side of the ledger, we can't forget about injuries. Initial workouts give rise to minor owies, which are frequently followed by strains, tears, ruptures and breaks when the games begin. An injury at the wrong position can expose a team's lack of depth, enabling a player who was in camp to fill a uniform to instead fill a roster spot on Opening Day.

Other factors that can enhance the chances of a player who otherwise would be buried include lacking minor league options, the inability of teams to understand the randomness of small sample sizes, blind organizational prejudice (usually against inexperience and in favor of established mediocrity) and, when possible, such time-honored practices as blackmail and payola.

Generally, it takes some combination of the above conditions to enable a player who enters camp with hopes as pale as Chris Kahrl's complexion to head north with his name on a big-league jersey. Let's take a gander at a few players who have parlayed quality March performances with good fortune and as a result may overcome some very long odds.

Anaheim Angels

It is said that the cream always rises to the top. So do corpses if they're not properly weighted, which explains what has happened in Tempe, where Benji Gil has emerged from a mass of lifeless middle infielders and latched on to the Angels' utility-infielder job. That analogy may be a little harsh, but Gil hasn't set foot on a major-league diamond since 1997, spending the last two seasons in Calgary with two different organizations.

Gil stood out from the flotsam thanks to some unexpected offense, and has been among the team leaders in extra-base hits all spring. However, unless new Angels' hitting coach Mickey Hatcher has helped pull off the most radical career change since Cat Stevens, Gil remains a free-swinging hack who doesn't make nearly enough contact to put runs on the board.

Even after the Halos leave the desert and the Nomar Garciaparra mirage behind, Gil should be an adequate middle infielder for a team with scant playoff hopes. He may not hit any better than Andy Sheets, but at least he provides a competent glove at all the infield positions. Should Gary DiSarcina have another injury-plagued campaign, Gil could step in for an extended period of time and the team wouldn't miss a beat, although that's damning with faint praise.

Oakland Athletics

Here's a case where a player's total collapse has forced a team to search for an alternate solution. A.J. Hinch's continued free-fall from prospectdom has not only scrapped Art Howe's plan to have him split time with Ramon Hernandez, but it may mean that Hinch will be wearing a brand-spanking-new Sacramento River Cats' uniform when the season begins. Hinch's extended failures have opened the door for Ragin' Cajun Danny Ardoin to end his vocational training and begin his career as a major-league backup catcher.

Ardoin will never muster a high enough batting average to hold an everyday job, but he does enough little things that he should carve out a Gregg Zaun-like entry in Total Baseball. His defensive skills are top-notch, pitchers like the way he calls a game and he draws enough walks and has enough juice in his bat to have some offensive merit. He is also fortunate enough to be in an organization that recognizes the value of secondary skills.

Ardoin has been the spare tire on the A's two-wheeled catching vehicle of the future for the last three seasons. As of this writing, his Arizona numbers are no better than Hinch's, but if he can string together a few hits over the next couple of games, it might be enough to get him mounted and rolling.

Seattle Mariners

It's almost time for games to start counting in the standings, so does it really come as a shock that Lou Piniella is complaining about his pitching? Despite the large-scale arms buildup near the end of the Woodward regime and the free-agent signings of Aaron Sele, Arthur Rhodes and Kaz Sasaki, a series of sub-par outings by the Mariners' staff has Mt. Piniella rumbling yet again.

While Piniella has disparaging things to say about almost every pitcher on the roster, Jose Paniagua has been a particular target. Working in a setup role, Paniagua was one of the less combustible options in the Seattle bullpen last season, but now finds himself relegated to middle relief due to the influx of new hurlers. Piniella doesn't feel Paniagua can succeed in his new role unless he adds an effective off-speed pitch to his fastball/slider repertoire. Paniagua is struggling mightily with it and only recently managed to pull his ERA into single digits. He would be bound for Triple-A if there was any hope he would clear waivers. The Mariners may still try to package him in a deal.

If they do, Kevin Hodges will get a chance to be this year's Brett Hinchliffe. Hodges came over from the Astros last summer in a trade for Matt Mieske and spent the remainder of the campaign in Tacoma, giving up more than a hit an inning with an unimpressive strikeout rate. However, he does throw strikes and has used a heavy sinker to compile an ERA under 2.00 in the Cactus League. (Ed. note: Hodges was hammered for nine runs in 2 1/3 innings Sunday.) He has only gotten in ten innings of work, but Piniella has a history of judging pitchers on one or two outings, so that won't be an obstacle to his making the ballclub. In other organizations, snagging the final spot in the bullpen would be considered an opportunity for advancement. With Piniella as manager, it's tantamount to career suicide.

Texas Rangers

For all of General Manager Doug Melvin's off-season retooling and salary shedding, it appears that the Rangers will head back to the Lone Star State with no unexpected guests on their 25-man roster. Some analysts may be surprised that non-roster invitee Tom Evans will probably open the season at the hot corner, but given his slick glove, rock-solid bat and Michael Lamb's inexperience, they really shouldn't be.

One player who did raise some eyebrows in Port Charlotte was Doug Davis, last seen high-tailing it out of Texas after a ten-run shellacking last summer. Although Davis was optioned to Oklahoma last week so that he can get regular work, his Florida performance (11 2/3 innings, 2.31 ERA with 13 strikeouts) planted a seed--make that a bulb--in the minds of the Rangers' brass. Davis doesn't have overpowering stuff, but he spots his pitches exceptionally well and is fearless on the mound. He has primarily been a starter in the minors, but showed this spring that he can be equally effective out of the bullpen.

Davis may well have won a job in long relief if it weren't for the fact that fellow southpaw Matt Perisho has paid his dues and is out of minor-league options. Though Davis's talents wouldn't be fully utilized as a situational left-hander, if the strained ligament in Mike Venafro's left middle finger flares up again, Johnny Oates won't hesitate to insert him into that role temporarily. Davis has also put his name at the top of the page for when one of the Rangers' fragile starting five finds his way onto the disabled list.

Related Content:  The Who,  A.J. Hinch

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